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A Few Thoughts about Music, Story, and the Death of Poetry inspired by Jonathan Swift

One of the talks I will be giving in July in Charleston at the Circe National Conference is about Jonathan Swift’s critique of Modernity. His insights into the problems caused by the modern world are profound and surprisingly relevant even three hundred years later.

In a very simplified nutshell: Swift saw that the modern world reduces everything and breaks everything into parts. As a result, we lose sight of the whole. In fact, most of the humor of his writings comes from someone failing to grasp the whole and drawing the wrong conclusion based on examining the part.

Swift goes on to show us that when we lose sight of the whole, we lose what it means to be human. We become fragmented and we suffer for it.

He offers an antidote to this modern fragmentation, one that Circe fans will heartily agree with. What he thinks will restore our wholeness is… Story and Music. He directs us back to the Ancients and their understanding of both of those things.

Obviously I agree wholeheartedly with Swift! I have devoted my life to story because I believe so strongly that story is the key to restoring our damaged, fragmented humanity. And I put Music right up there with Story too—because for me music has always been poetry, a type of story.

But for the Ancients, poetry was music. Story was music. In the Ancient world and well into the Middle Ages, stories were poems that were sung. All three of these were connected.

“Sing, oh goddess, the wrath of Achilles…” Homer was literally singing that. And he asked the Muse to inspire him, and the inspiration he got was Music in poetic verse.

So while I think about Jonathan’s Swift’s warnings about breaking things apart and the subsequent loss of humanness that results, I’ve been thinking about what has been lost because Music and Story got separated.

In The Anatomy of Criticism, Northrup Frye made the point that when Poetry got separated from Story, it was the death of Poetry. He notes that poetry these days is essentially a specialty now, written by poets mainly for poets. Whereas before it was a vibrant part of a culture and a culture’s understanding of itself. Those great epic poems were the stories that cultures told about themselves to understand who they were. Now poems are sarcastically associated with teen girls scribbling about their angst.

So, if Poetry died when it was separated from Story, what have we lost from the separation of Music and Story? I don’t know the answer. But it’s an interesting question to ponder.

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